Set in the future, The Year of the Flood tells the story of the build-up to and aftermath of a pandemic known as the Waterless Flood, which all but eradicates the human race. The environment the survivors are left with is extremely inhospitable: Earth’s natural resources are long depleted, and the flora and fauna that remain are made up of genetically spliced, hybrid organisms such as rakunks (rats crossed with skunks), pigoons (hybrid pigs resembling balloons because they’re stuffed with duplicate human transplant organs), and liobams (lions forced not just to lie down with lambs but to integrate with them biologically) — not to mention soydines, chickeanpeas and beananas.
Margaret Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake was set in the same post-apocalyptic world, and several characters from it reappear here. Atwood famously asserts that these speculative fictions (her preferred term) differ from sci-fi because they take place in a plausible future, i.e., one that doesn’t contain anything we don’t have the potential to create here and now. It’s an authorial stance that lends itself strongly to satire. The potential danger is that satire and dystopia, like lions and lambs, can be tricky bedfellows. Make too many jokes and you run the risk of evoking no sympathy for the characters under threat of extinction; make the imaginative space too credibly grim and the jokes won’t work: a bit like trying to gene-splice Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with The Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The novel focuses on a religious cult called God’s Gardeners, whose goal is ‘to reconcile the findings of Science with their sacramental view of life’. They prepare for the coming of the Waterless Flood (foreseen by their visionary but sanctimonious leader, Adam One) by instilling in their followers a religious devotion to the world’s living creatures and a disdain for its evil corporations. But their activities must remain secret, as the Gardeners are pitted against a hostile prevailing world, where all-powerful organisations like SecretBurger and Happicuppa (a fast-food chain and a coffee company respectively) have a stranglehold on society, and a privatised army called CorpseCorps terrorises the people. The streets of Pleebland (an umbrella term for the world outside gated communities) are no-go areas populated by rival gang members and the scarred veterans of a violent reality-show-cum-prison known as Painball. The general public, meanwhile, distracted by the synthetic pleasures of the ANooYoo Spa and the SeksMart, is desensitised to the death of the planet, and dismisses God’s Gardeners and their ilk as terrorists and ‘eco-freaks’.
The human face of these events comes from two female protagonists, whose perspectives we share as the action jumps back and forth between the years leading up to the Waterless Flood and its immediate aftermath: Toby, an ‘Eve’ of God’s Gardeners, who is secretly sceptical of their beliefs but prized by them for her skills as a herbalist; and Ren, a young Gardener who leaves to become a ‘trapeze dancer’ in a high-end sex club called Scales and Tails.
The Year of the Flood presents a polarised and unremittingly bleak view of people. On the one hand, the population at large doesn’t care about the moribund planet and seems happy to gene-splice to its heart’s content until there are no naturally occurring species left. On the other, humanity’s only viable response to the catastrophe it has presided over is a well-meaning but conflicted band of cult members, who can’t laugh at farts because digestion is holy, who frown upon toys because ‘Nature is our playground’, and whose idea of a solution is to try and mind-meld with a pod of peas.
Atwood’s vision is compelling and powerfully imagined, if undermined at times by the conflict between her urge to make knowing (and often funny) gags about the real world and her wish to render a plausibly hellish future. But then, this is a novel much preoccupied with the necessary combination of the apparently irreconcilable.